On Attempting the Translation of a Hungarian Poem

adyEndre Ady will be an important character in the next two novels I write. Many consider him the best Hungarian poet of the 20th century. The operative word here is Hungarian. Some of his poems have been translated from the Hungarian into English, but I want to try my hand at it.

It takes chutzpah to try to translate prose from another language, but trying to translate a poem comes closer to hubris.

I know this because for more than a year I have been studying Hungarian. I’ve discovered there are few exact matches from Hungarian to English. For some languages, say German and Dutch, there are probably lots of words that are very close. Even in English, there are lots of words that are similar to German words. Consider ‘apple’ and ‘apfel’ or ‘blue’ and ‘blau’, just to start with ‘a’ and ‘b’.

But Hungarian is related to few other languages. There have been claims that it is related to Finnish, but most Hungarians and Finns just shrug their shoulders and smile when they consider this possibility.

Aranyhíd, one of my favorite Hungarian words, literally means “golden bridge.” Aranyhíd is not in my dictionary and befuddles Google Translate. It means the reflection of the rising or setting sun when it looks like a bridge across the water. What a beautiful word! And just so the moon will not get jealous, the Hungarians invented the word ezüsthíd, which means silver bridge.

That one language has words that don’t map well onto words of another language isn’t surprising. After all, we learn most of our words from context. As children, which is when we pick up most of our words, we listen to how words are used and we form ideas about what they mean. A six year old does not consult a dictionary every time he hears a new word. I think each of us has a language of our own, where words have their acquired special shades of meaning not shared by others.

Similarly, within a family words or phrases can take on special coloring, formed from the experiences of the family members. These special meanings are not known outside that family. Groups, too, have special phrases that are not shared by others. Sometimes group-speak identifies you as a bona fide member, whether the group is the American Medical Association or MS-13.

And so it goes from gangs and groups, to states, to regions of the country, and to people who supposedly “speak the same language.” No wonder translation is an art unto itself.

But it is worse than just not having an easy translation. The words we use will influence the way we think. Words express the intellectual and emotional journey a person, a group, or a country has traveled. Words are the backbone on which culture is built. Which leads me to the uncomfortable question: without understanding a language can one really understand a culture?

I want to write about the Hungarian culture and politics of more than a hundred years ago. Can I really do that without understanding the language?

I started studying Hungarian because much of the research materials are only in Hungarian. It is only now that I realize that this study is giving me more than just the basic facts I get from hundred-year-old Hungarian newspaper articles. It gives me a flavor for the culture. Of course I don’t think I will be able to get the full depth of that culture, but I will do my best.

And that is why I want to translate an Ady poem. I will study each word and nurse the meaning out of it as best I can. Then I will take the feelings I get from these words and attempt to make a poem out of it. But that will not be a translation of Ady’s poem. It will be a poem inspired by Ady. And hopefully it will help me better understand the time and place of my next Hungarian novels.

Writing in Books

Image result for Signed book

I was fortunate to have permission to use some translations in my newest novel and I have just packaged complementary copies as a small thank you to the copyright owners. I thought about signing the books, but decided to include thank you notes on separate cards instead.

I do sign books, when asked, but I hate writing in books. It was the way I was brought up. Books were precious, not to be marred. This point was made clear to me when I was two or three and thought decorating one of my parents’ books would be just the thing. They did not agree.

One of the too many things I kept when my parents died was the large library of their favorite books. Some of them I kept because I wanted to read them, but some of them I kept because the sight of them sitting on the self said “home” to me. Of all these books, there is only one that I have found with notes in it, a book my mother wrote in.

I love this book. My mother’s voice sings from its pages. I wish I had many more books with notes in the margins, underlinings, question marks and exclamation points. I wish I had many more books with my parents’ opinions scattered among the pages.

Recently I have tried writing notes in books. I found it difficult. I go back to the books I have marred and look at the notes. Maybe for someone else those notes would be of interest, but for me they just look messy. They don’t enhance my reading experience and they don’t help me find the important passages. I will not write in more of my own books.

I will continue to sign books when asked, but every time I do, I cringe.



Why Hungarian Rhapsody?


An Interview with Myself

Why did you write Hungarian Rhapsody?

After writing Becoming Mia, and answering readers questions about the book, I realized that my upbringing was a bit unusual for the 1950s and 60s. My parents assumed I would go to college and I would be self-sufficient after college. They didn’t demand that I study any field in particular and they would not state an opinion on what career I might choose. Even stranger than their attitudes toward a woman’s career, was my mother’s attitude toward sex. In her opinion, pre-marital affairs happened and if I, her college daughter, decided I wanted an intimate relationship, my mother would support me. That support included a to-whom-it-may-concern note giving her permission for me to obtain contraceptives.

Was such a note required?

I’m not sure it was even sufficient in those days. In some states it was illegal to give contraceptives to unmarried women, with or without parental permission. So it was an unusual attitude to have and I wondered why she seemed to have opinions so different from most women. She had told me her father had been a “progressive” in Hungary in the early 1900s and he had written several books, two of which I had saved from her belongings after she died. They were in Hungarian of course. With a lot of help from software I translated one of them, Women of Tomorrow. It was published in 1905, but would have been considered radical in the 1960s. It advocated coeducation, equal financial rights for women, women’s right to vote, women’s rights to contraceptives, and most amazingly, acknowledged a woman’s right to sexual gratification.

These were radical ideas then?

In 1905 Hungary, women’s roles were strictly limited. Most women from wealthy families didn’t go to high school to study math and science and history, they went to convent school to learn needlepoint and other crafts, singing and music, and other skills considered appropriate for women. They didn’t go to college, and weren’t permitted in the professions. They were married off by their families to established older men, to whose authority they were subject, financially, domestically, and sexually.

So your mother probably got her ideas from her father. But where did he get his ideas?

Indeed! Those were radical ideas in 1905, particularly unusual in Hungary, which was a male chauvinistic society. But what was even stranger was holding these attitudes given his social background. He came from a wealthy family, his father owning a construction company that built large public buildings. One would think such a fellow would continue in his father’s business, marry a well-behaved Hungarian wife and prosper. Why would a man from a wealthy family leave his home town, go to Budapest, and delve into politics, specifically the politics of women’s rights? Hungarian Rhapsody is my attempt to paint a possible explanation.

Can you give us a hint? What is the explanation?

Given that they were of the same class and grew up in the same neighborhood, I assume that my grandparents knew each other from early childhood, and that my grandfather was first intrigued and then fell in love with my grandmother’s intelligence and independence. He saw the impediments to a woman’s freedom and also saw how Hungarian society’s sexual mores caused misery not just for women but also for men.

Which made your grandmother fall in love with him, right?

Well, it was not quite that easy. But we wouldn’t want to spoil the story.

Are We There Yet? Traveling by Train in the Past*

The Twentieth Century Limited

In my current WIP, my heroine, Ella, travels from her hometown of Nagykaniza to Budapest. How do I figure out how long it takes her? She’s lucky because in 1905, when she is traveling, Nagykanizsa is a stop on the trainline to Budapest.

Trains sped up travel time immensely. Consider these maps from the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States:


Map A shows how long it took in 1800 to travel from New York City to other locations. Each line marks the time needed to reach points on the line. So, for example, in 1800, it took about a day to travel from New York City to Philadelphia, about four days to travel to Boston, and just short of six weeks to get to Chicago. Travel was by stagecoach, horseback, foot, or boat. The stagecoaches were limited to an area south of Boston, north of Richmond, Virginia, and east of the Allegeny Mountains.


Map B shows travel times from New York City in 1830. Trains were not common yet, but there had been some improvements in travel. Steamboats were used, roads were improved, and canals were built, including the Erie Canal. One could reach Philadelphia in four hours, Boston in about a day and a half, and Chicago in less than 3 weeks.


The railroad exuberance started around 1830 in the United States. The “Railroad Barons,” entrepreneurs such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and James Hill, built or acquired large railway systems. Looking at Map C, we can see how taking the train shortened travel times. By 1857, just a little more than a quarter century after the railroad fever hit, one could travel from New York to Boston in less than a day and Chicago was only 2 days away. But it took three and a half weeks to get to San Francisco. In 1857, railroads only extended as far as the Mississippi River. From there, one had to rely on animal power or boat.


By 1930, as is shown in Map D, railroads ran the width and breadth of the country. Chicago was only one day away and you could travel all the way to San Francisco in 4 days.

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These maps give an idea of the travel times between locations, but if you want a precise time you can consult a timetable. The booklet pictured above, which can be found on line, gives schedules for most of the railroads in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba in 1912. If your character is traveling at some other year or continent, chances are a time table will be available on line or for purchase at a reasonable price.


Of course the timetables only tell part of the story. For example, consider the railroads available in 1840, as show in the map below from the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. 


 If your character is traveling from Richmond to Fredericksburg, the timetable will be pretty accurate. If you character starts from Short Pump, a two hour walk from Fredericksburg, your character will take that much longer to get to his destination. And if your character really wants to travel from Short Pump to Baltimore, you will need to add in the time to get from Fredericksburg to Washington, taking into account when a “connecting” train might be available.  Also, remember that in some cities there were (and still are) more than one railroad station. One needs to leave extra time to get from one station to another, if necessary.

These are the essentials of train travel times, leaving out of course train hijacking by robbers, snowstorms, and other drama you might add to your story.

For more information you can consult a model railroader. These hobbyists love to talk trains and often can help you with any questions you have.

Also, you might want to look at the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. It has more information about travel, such as post roads, canals, air routes, and mail routes. It also includes information about political history, industrial history, population studies and much more. And if you want even more information, it includes references.

* This post is taken from a short talk I gave at a gathering of the Great Lakes Chapter of the Historical Novel Society.

Péter Ágoston Forced Me to Study Hungarian

agoston1In my research for my next novel, I’ve found books and articles, many of them in Hungarian. I’ve become quite good at Google Translate. The information in Hungarian, until recently, has all been online, so copying and pasting it into Google Translate has not been that big a chore. But then I ran into Péter Ágoston, or, rather, his biography.

Péter Ágoston, or his roman à clef doppelgänger, will make a cameo appearance in my next novel, but in the following two novels, he and his wife will play important supporting roles. I want to know about him. One of my Hungarian advisors steered me to his biography. It is in Hungarian and was published in 2011. There is no ebook edition. It is only out in paperback and because it is still under copyright, no one has put an e-edition on line.

But I need to know what it says! Mr. Ágoston was my mother’s godfather. He played an important role in my mother’s life and, I am assuming, also in my grandmother’s life. That alone is reason enough to want to know more about him.

But there is more. His story is a metaphor for the turbulent and tragic Hungarian political changes following the end of World War I. He was a member of two of the socialist governments that took over after the Habsburg Empire collapsed.  He attempted to negotiate with the victors on behalf of the Hungarians. When those socialist governments fell to Admiral Horthy, he was arrested. After a lengthy trial on trumped up charges, he and several of his colleagues were condemned to death. This verdict became an international scandal. I have found articles about it in the New York Times, the Chicago papers, and in papers from all over the United States. I even found a discussion about it during a session of the British Parliament. The Soviet Union finally stepped in and traded several Hungarian prisoners it held for Ágoston and his fellow prisoners.

Ágoston’s story is dramatic and I will use it to showcase the chaos that followed the First World War in Hungary and how that chaos affected the lives of my main characters.

Back to the problem of finding out what this Hungarian book says. I could scan the book and OCR it. It would then be ready for Google Translate. Just thinking about this process tires me. It would take forever. It occurred to me that learning to read Hungarian might not take as long. And even if it took longer, then all those archives in Hungarian, which I thought were beyond my reach, would become available.

I’ve been at it a week by now and I’ve discovered all kinds of interesting things about Hungarian. For example, subjects and objects are indicated by suffixes. This means that a sentence’s word order can be changed without confusing whether it was the dog that bit the postman or the other way around. But altering the word order can be used to change the emphasis of the sentence. There’s a lot to learn!

But I am determined. And who knows? My next blog entry may be in Hungarian!

A Book By Another Cover


When I wrote Becoming Mia I thought of it as a coming of age story. It was, of course, semi-autobiographical, but it was fiction. I thought of it as literary fiction. After I showed the manuscript to several people who know the literary business, I was informed it was historical fiction. The story, after all, took place more than 50 years ago.

My book was literary historical fiction.

Shortly after I released the book I received a phone call from my husband’s cousin. The first words out of her mouth were “Did you marry Chip?”

No explanation that the book was fiction, that Chip did not exist, so I could not marry him, seemed to satisfy my cousin-in-law. I have had this same conversation many times since and it has convinced me that many of my readers think of Mia as a romance novel.

It is true that, among other topics, love and sex are covered. But how can you write a story of a college student without discussing love and sex? You can’t. So my heroine Mia falls in and out of love and she confronts the problems of sex. Does that make it a romance?

I guess, for purposes of selling the book, it does. I want to sell the book. Rumor has it that nothing sells a book like love and sex.

So, as of today, Becoming Mia is a romance.

How do I let romance readers know this is just the book for them? By changing the cover, or course.

And that is what we have done. The new cover, at the top of this page, has roses. Red roses. There is nothing as romantic as red roses.

And for those of my readers who are into literary historical fiction, let me assure them that nothing other than the cover has changed. Becoming Mia is still a coming of age story set in the crazy, turbulent 1960s. It is a literary historical fiction romance.

Unexpected Pleasures


I don’t know why I wrote Becoming Mia. It was just something I wanted to do. I thought once I had written it, I would move on to the next novel and, in fact, that is what I have done.

But Mia lingers on. At first it was just comments I got from friends who had read the book, things like, Did you really hang out with preppies? And more serious comments like, Were you ever caught in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration? But as those conversations evolved they became more nuanced. How do we know whether we should be involved in a war? How do we know what our government is doing? How has society’s ability to use the talents of women changed? I learned things about my friends, about their ambitions and disappointments, about how their families handled those turbulent 60s. I loved those conversations.

One of my friends arranged for her book club to read Becoming Mia, and she invited me to the discussion. I was a bit nervous. After all, not all these folks were my friends, and maybe they hated the book. In fact, the people were all very kind, and again, I was amazed at the kinds of experiences people shared. One lady said she was convinced the book was about her. She is my age, studied math, and had a cat named Euclid. Her Euclid was also black. It was a wonderful discussion. People shared their experiences of that time and the discussion was candid and open. I felt connected with those readers.

Since that first event I have been to others. Again, I loved the reactions to the book. One person said she had known the character Sam, only his name was Bobby, not Sam. I’m not sure that an author can get higher praise than that.

But even more than the comments on my story, I loved the discussion. An author takes risks by putting his story on paper. At least this author feels that way. And in these groups, people have reacted in kind, reading  “my version of the facts,” commenting on them, and putting forward their own views, allowing me to better understand the world I wrote about and the world I now live in.

These are unexpected pleasures.

Write Your Memoirs!


My memoirs? Who would be interested in my memoirs?

A future historian or novelist, that’s who.

I am fortunate to have two unpublished memoirs, written by contemporaries of my grandmother Ella, the main character of my next novel. These documents are invaluable. They describe the memoirist’s dwellings, the food she ate, the schooling she received, her life goals, and on and on. These are details that I cannot find in history books, not even in cultural histories.

So give a hand to a struggling writer or scholar who, 50 years or 150 years in the future, will find your life story fascinating.

Maybe you don’t want to help a future historian. Don’t step away from that keyboard quite yet.

Your family will love your memoirs, even if you just write down all the stories you love to tell. In writing these tales you are sharing your voice, your hopes, your disappointments, sharing a gift only you can give.

My father, who died 15 years ago, wrote his memoirs. Now and again I will take his book off the shelf and read a passage or two. It warms my soul, makes me feel close to him, even though he is no longer here.

When I first read my father’s memoir, I discovered things he had never told me. Some incidents he omitted just because he never thought to tell me. But he also never disclosed some episodes that were too painful: He never told me his best high school friend, the man who would become his brother-in-law, was murdered in the Nazi camps.

My father’s memoirs give me a more precise picture of who he was, a path to understand him more fully.

Still not convinced that you should write your memoirs?

Then consider yourself. Consider the things you will discover when you write your memoirs.

When I started work on my novel, Becoming Mia, I was convinced that my hometown, Berkeley, California, was progressive. After some research I discovered that the Berkeley schools were segregated, that real estate was red-lined, that, though there were no laws against serving blacks in certain restaurants, such bans were “understood.” By writing Mia, I got a clearer picture of the environment I grew up in.

And I understood myself better. I understood why I felt the way I did 50 years ago. I loosed my grasp on some of the “truths” I have held most of  my life. I became more understanding of where I have been and what I have done. I became comfortable with myself.

So, for future generations, for your family, and for yourself, start writing your memoirs!

Koestler on Writing Historical Novels


In researching my next novel, Ella, I have been reading the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing. Koestler wrote, among many other books, Darkness at Noon, a novel about the Moscow show trials in the late 1930s, which is one of the best of the 20th century.

I should have put The Invisible Writing down by now, having read past the time period of interest, but it is so engaging I keep on reading. It covers, among many other things, Koestler’s thoughts on writing historical novels.

His only historical novel, as far as I know, is The Gladiator, a story about Spartacus and the Gladiators’ War, 73-71 BC. It amuses me that he came to the topic because the German Communist Party grew out of an organization calling itself SpartakusBund, and Koestler, not knowing anything about Spartacus, looked him up and became intrigued. I can sympathize with Koestler being swept up in an historical event, and discovering similarities between a previous time and the current events.

Koestler talks about the weeks he spent researching the novel. He dug into the condition of slaves in antiquity, the rules governing gladiator fights, the folktales of Trace and Gaul, and on and on. This sounds like my research of Hungarian history, the legends about Hungary’s founding, the diet of the Hungarian laborers, the social structure of the country.

The materials available to Koestler on the slaves were minimal, but the information at hand about their opponents, the generals and senators of Rome, was abundant. He found this an advantage, being able to use his imagination about Spartacus and his army. At the same time, the information available about the times, gave him a foundation upon which he could build his story. He found that “filling in the details became a problem of intuitive geometry, the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle.” Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope to feel similarly when I start filling in the characters that my grandparents inspire.

But the following passage made me pause:

This led me into a study of such far-fetched subjects as the nature and shape of Roman underwear, and their complicated ways of fastening clothes by buckles, belts and sashes. In the end, not a word of all this found its way into the novel, and clothes are hardly even mentioned in the text; but I found it impossible to write a scene if I could not visualize how the characters were dressed, and how their garments were held together.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I laughed out loud. Clothing is not my sticking point, but plumbing is. For some reason I cannot write a scene without understanding whether my characters had to fetch water from a well or whether they used chamber pots and outhouses.

As much as I enjoyed this passage, it was immediately followed by:

I decided half-way through the book never again to write a historical novel. There is a basic inertia to imagination which sets limits to one’s capacity for projecting oneself into worlds distant in space and time. Every culture is an island. It communicates with other islands, but ultimately it can only experience tragedy and laughter in its own climate…There are, it seems, only two possible techniques for the novelist to bring these shadows of history into focus. One is to turn them into silhouettes with sharp profiles, into character-types as entertaining as the shadow-plays of childhood, but without the depth and warmth and luminosity needed to make emotional identification possible. The alternative technique is to cheat; to bring the shadows alive by projecting into them the feelings and ideas of the writer’s own period.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (pp. 325-326). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope Koestler is wrong. Of course it is difficult to understand a time and culture well enough to be able to write realistically about characters’ actions and feelings. And, of course, some writers overcome these obstacles better than others. But well written historical fiction explicates the times and the culture. And that is what I hope to do with Ella.

Women of Tomorrow – Part 2



If you have read my previous blog, Women of Tomorrow, You know that I have found a book online written by my grandfather.  The only problem: it is in Hungarian.

I am now in the throes of trying to translate it.

I am becoming better at it. I am using Bing Translate and Google Translate; when the results of one give nonsense, I try the other.

I have also discovered that part of my difficulties are the result of the vagaries of copying from a pdf and pasting into the translate program. Sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, this process will split a word in the middle. Currently I look at each line and correct the line when necessary. Once I understand what is going on, I may be able to write some code to solve this problem.

I am also learning Hungarian! I now know that és is “and.” If I have trouble with a sentence and there is a és in it, I will split the sentence before and after the és. Sometimes this yields something comprehensible. It seems strange that compounding a sentence would cause so much trouble. Maybe some of you linguists out there can explain the problem to me.

I’ve also learned that the third person singular does not differentiate between genders. So ő means he, or she, or it. This can make a sentence which refers to a man and a woman difficult to understand. How do the Hungarians do it?

Even worse, consider a sentence referring to a man, a woman, and a horse!

All this work has paid off. I found the following sentence in my grandfather book:

“The marriage of the ignorant daughter for petty reasons is not qualitatively different from prostitution.”

Way to go, Grandpa!